Beef or Cow, Pig or Pork? Why it matters

This weekend, I went to Wurstfest, a celebration of German music, crafts, and heritage, but mostly of beer and meat. I’m not a vegetarian, but I don’t eat too much meat, mostly because I don’t care for it too much and know that too much of it isn’t good for me. Until recently, I stuck eating things with two legs (chicken, turkey) or no legs (fish), but not four legs (no cow or pig). I’d tell people the leg rule when they wanted to know what I do and don’t eat, and had thought of it as an efficient way of communicating. But maybe it was more than that.

A new paper in the journal Appetite (the paper is behind a paywall, but this good summary is not) shows that our behaviors around meat shape the way we think of it, and in turn shape our willingness to eat it.

  1. Presentation: When meat resembles the animal it originated as (or is shown with an image of the animal it originated as), we view it with more empathy than if it bears less resemblance. The researchers found this with chicken in various stages of processing, a pork roast with its head either on or off, and an advertisement for lamb chops that was either accompanied by an image of a living lamb or not.

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    More Empathy                                                                          Less Empathy

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  2. Language about the process of slaughtering animals. Participants read about the mass slaughtering of cows, which was presented either with the word slaughtered, killed, or harvested. Reading about slaughtered and killed cows led people to have more empathy toward the animals than the tamer, more distant verb harvested did.
  3. Language about the food itself. Some people read a menu that listed its items under the categories of pork and beef and others read one that referred to these same foods under the categories of pig and cow. People whose options were referred to by the actual animal names showed more empathy and disgust towards the foods, as well as a decreased willingness to eat meat and a greater willingness to opt for a vegetarian food. Other work has called the practice of using words like pork when we’re really talking about a pig linguistic camouflaging, a way of concealing what something is by using a certain name (not much different from the consequences of euphemism more generally)
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Across all of the studies, the researchers found that the effects were driven how much people dissociated themselves with the foods. In cases where they showed less empathy and disgust and were more willing to eat meat, they had greater mental distance between themselves and the potential foods than cases where they were more empathic. In other words, seeing an entire pig carcass with its head on made people feel closer to the animal, which led to feelings of empathy. The beheaded carcass, on the other hand, doesn’t feel so close, so people felt less empathic.

The language studies intrigue me the most, but I’m also considering that it’s not just that certain words encourage us to dissociate and mentally distance ourselves from food more than others driving differences in empathy and willingness to eat meat. Slaughtering and killing, for instance, have only one definition. The definition insinuated, especially in the case of slaughter, that violence was probably involved. Harvesting is not a synonym for these words. You can harvest crops, which means to remove them from their tree or vine as they are intended to be removed. It’s not violent, and few people would call it cruel. It’s also not a common way of talking about killing animals (my Google Ngram search confirmed this intuition).

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The participants who encountered the phrase harvest cows were not only encountering a phrase that actually has meanings beyond the meaning in context (as opposed to the alternative conditions), but they were also encountering a less common one, which can be a partial explanation for why their responses looked different than responses from the other conditions.

The menu that labeled items as either pig/cow or pork/beef is similar. English convention is that foods and living animals are referred to by different names. When convention is broken, people will pause a little longer to consider what they’re reading. While the findings that people responded differently to these two menu conditions (and to slaughter/kill vs. harvest) are numerically true, we should also consider that familiarity with different words and practices will also shape our thoughts and behaviors.

One neat thing I discovered is that there are languages that don’t use different terms for the living animals and food animals, like German. Does the habitual use of using food-only animal terms like beef actually encourage us to systematically think of meat differently than the habitual use of animal terms for food and living creatures? Based on the amount of meat I saw at Wurstfest this weekend, I’d guess no, but it’s still a possibility.

The problem with things that “cause” cancer

Causation is a tough concept to wrap our heads around. In its simplest sense, we say that one thing causes another when the first made that second thing happen. This is usually a 1:1 relationship. A leads to B, regardless of whether some other things do or don’t happen, and without A, B would not happen.

One common error is to attribute causality when there is none. It’s this type of thinking that leads us to believe that we need a lucky pencil to take tests – with it, we’ll ace the test; without it, we’ll bomb. When two things are correlated (for example, losing fifteen pounds and getting asked on more dates), it’s easy to make a causal inference, even when it’s not warranted. This is the reason that science teachers drill the phrase CORRELATION IS NOT CAUSATION into students’ heads.

https://xkcd.com/552/
Image: xkcd

We can also make the reverse inferential mistake; that is, when one thing does actually cause another, we can interpret it as a correlation. This is especially true when ascribing to causation would require that we change our behavior. For example, we might be less likely to really buy into the idea that obesity leads to heart disease if it suggests that we should change our habits, instead diluting the relationship to a more correlational one in our minds, acknowledging that, yeah, people who are obese tend to have more heart disease, but there are plenty of obese people who don’t, so maybe there’s no need to cut out the Big Macs just yet. This is commonly referred to as cognitive dissonance: having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change.

To further complicate causal thinking, many things don’t have 1:1 causes. A might cause B, but only in the presence of C, D, and E, or only in the absence of F and G. And sometimes one of those factors that mediates whether A causes B is pure randomness. This is another concept that is really difficult for humans to wrap our heads around, but randomness has played a huge role in making us the creatures we are and making the world the place it is today.

This week the World Health Organization (WHO) made a splash by releasing guidelines that placed processed meats in the same “cause” category for cancer as smoking and asbestos. What does this mean? It means that the WHO is confident that processed meats increases our likelihood of developing cancer. It does not mean that they increase our chances of getting cancer as much as asbestos or smoking do, but that they are equally confident that all of these things do in fact increase cancer risk. This is not one of those straightforward A causes B types of causation, though. We know that there are some people who eat lots of processed meats and never develop cancer. The causation is one of the more complicated types, most notably involving randomness. If someone eats a lot of these meats and then the right randomness (genetic mutations) take place, that person is more likely to end up with cancer than someone who didn’t eat any processed meat but experienced the same randomness (though that second person could very well get the disease too, as we know).

So the word “cause” is not a lie, or even an exaggeration. It’s true. But how do we interpret it? This week, it seems that most people interpreted it as the 1:1 relationship cause, accounting for much of the media hype. It might seem, then, that we should avoid this chaos-inducing word, and instead go for something less anxiety-provoking: maybe “linked to” or “associated with” would get the job done.

These weaker phrases have their own drawbacks, though, precisely because they induce less alarm. They are likely to encourage more cognitive dissonance, more of the reasoning that this is not something that affects me personally and I therefore shouldn’t feel as compelled to overhaul my sausage-filled diet.

There is probably no single verb that can be used in a headline to capture the relationship between certain behaviors and cancer risk, one that will encourage the right amount of alarm. Our best bet is to be aware that there are no perfect words to talk about complex ideas, and that means we will inevitably use imperfect words, words that mislead in different ways. Sometimes it takes some media chaos for an issue to get the attention it needs so that people can understand a situation and make informed decisions. Hopefully this is one of those times.

 

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